Experimental and avant-garde cinema is often positioned in relation to the assumption that the cinematic arts are inherently commodified and commodifying. Related to this assumption, I often come across a certain fatalism in descriptions of the ubiquity of the mainstream industry – as if there is an ironic echo of the cry that “there is no alternative”. It is thought that experimental and avant-garde cinemas are at best an anachronism, or at worst an anomaly to the immutable machine of the mass media.
A positive development of this perspective can be found in the work of Richard Tuohy, whose experimental, ‘hand-made’ films harness 16mm and 8mm technologies to exploit and interrogate the continuing possibilities in the filmic strip. Tuohy is not simply an experimental filmmaker; he is also active in spearheading the Melbourne-based film co-operative Artist Film Workshop, which works exclusively with 16mm film, and runs the processing centre Nanolab for 8mm film.1 His work has been extensively screened in Australia since the 1980s and at international film festivals since 2009. Tuohy and his partner Dianna Barrie (who is also a filmmaker) have worked with experimental film laboratories the world over and have visited an incredible two-thirds of all labs.2 The global community of workshops and screening societies have been referred to as “Kitchen Sink” cinema because their practitioners tend to work out of small spaces, such as in warehouses or sheds, and are active in everything from the repairing of machinery to the developing process, and finally to the screening of the work itself. Unlike mainstream films, when these kinds of hand-made films are screened the artist is present the majority of the time.
Sitting in conversation with Tuohy in early 2016, he reminded me that first and foremost film is necessarily wedded to industrial processes of production and that, within this context, film cannot be made outside of the factory:
“Film is the first fundamentally mechanical and industrial art-form (…) motion-picture filmmakers are inextricably connected to corporations (or nowadays it’s just one corporation: Kodak). (…) We can’t replicate what they can do. We could make other things, but we can’t make what they can do. Not even crudely. Basically, it’s impossible to make colour film. The idea of suggesting that an artist or a group of artists can get together and make a colour film that was remotely recognisable as a colour film, let alone film that was comparable to Kodak, it could never happen.”
For Tuohy, whose practice eschews digital technology, the possibilities for film have not “been exhausted” by the great shift to digital toward the end of the twentieth century. “The change to digital hasn’t happened because the ‘film project’ has run out (whatever that might mean). It’s just that the commercial industry has by and large moved away from using film to using digital technology”. Technological shifts have been part-and-parcel of the film industry from its inception, however for Tuohy and other experimental film practitioners these losses nonetheless bring with them a series of gains for the film practitioner interested in the artistic possibilities of the medium.
As Tuohy provocatively noted, for one thing the shift to digital has meant that those filmmakers “seeking to be the ‘next Spielberg’” are no longer a part of the filmmaking community because they now tend to be interested in digital. In other words, those who seek to use film tend to be people interested in the technology as an artistic medium, rather than as leverage for narrative. More importantly, the shift in technologies and concomitant loss of commercial processing centres means that filmmakers are less alienated from the production process than ever before:
“People who are working in experimental film are having to do everything themselves, more so than was previously the case. That is leading those artists to discover different kinds of things in the process itself. More than ever, that is the case for people who are engaged with experimental films. It’s rewarding because it’s not so abstract, if there was a word like ‘inabstract’ I would use it. (…) There is a trace of you in the actual production itself and you can see that in the finished result. More than ever, procedure and the traces of procedure of the hand-work that’s involved in filmmaking are a part of the finished product.”3
Within this context, the origins of the current global movement of film co-operatives are – for Tuohy at least – not necessarily linked to the London filmmakers co-operative of the 1960s. Co-operatives such as Lab laba laba in Jakarta or MTK in France are by-and-large enabling, rather than collaborative, bodies where artists come together to share resources, knowledge, and materials. “Half of the interesting film-work is coming out of the film labs these days, which makes it a pretty important presence in experimental cinema.” The common aesthetic thread that links these co-operatives is an interest in discovering the possibilities of the medium, or in Tuohy’s words “to physically work inside (of) it.”
Tuohy’s practice harnesses the mechanical possibilities of filmic technology, and is about the tripartite relationship between the artist, spectator, and technology. The traces of his handiwork is apparent in each of his films, just as each film induces an organic, affective response based on the aesthetic invention that is operative within the work. Much of Tuohy’s work is indebted to the structuralist tradition, and can be read as related to the reveries of Michael Snow or Paul Sharits, as it expressly places the limits and possibilities of the technology as primary over the content of the mediated images on screen. His practice, however, can be squarely identified with the tradition of independent filmmaking that stems – in an Australian context – from the work of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill. This tradition of expanded cinema in which, to quote from the Cantrill’s Cinema Manifesto of 1971,“the form is the content” 4 demands all aspects of filmmaking be encompassed into the single filmic work. For the Cantrill’s in the 1970s, as for contemporary expanded cine-artists Otherfilm of Brisbane5, this often means the work includes the actual participation of the audience in the form of (for example) drawing onto the projected screen. It goes without saying that both Tuohy and Barrie possess the same passionate dedication, determination, and experimental ardour for film as the Cantrill’s are famous for. Tuohy’s practice, however, is centred on the technology and it works to elevate the materiality of filmic technology into an immaterial vision. In other words, everything from the raw, negative stock to the projection itself is harnessed to figure the process of how film effects and transforms the mind and body of the spectator.
An example of how his work exploits filmic technology is Ginza Strip (2012, 16mm), a film where the long strip of film is made to figure the vertical lines of skyscrapers and the horizontal of the city road in the Ginza Strip in Tokyo, Japan. The film itself has been treated to a ‘Chromaflex’ technique of processing, a technique developed by Tuohy whereby colour-positive, colour-negative, and black-and-white are developed so as to be apparent within the same frame.
“The way the procedure works is that you do an initial black and white process on a piece of print stock. It’s a very partial development that you’ve done, but it’s enough to lock down the pattern of the thing that was on the film. The images on the film are now safe. Once you’ve washed off all the chemistry you can handle the film in the light. Now you can do things to do it in the light, you can place material with your hands on the film surface which will block or will allow chemistry through in subsequent chemical processing”.
The effect is a kaleidoscopic vision of the Ginza Strip, where the material filmstrip that contains combinations of negative, positive, black and white, and colour, simulates the energy and vibrancy of the real Ginza strip – the colliding intersections coming to life through the intersection between viewer and screen. His harnessing of the processes of filmic technology, as the mechanical capturing of the image and sound of the world, provides new spaces in which the filmmaker can unveil how the medium captures alternate perspectives of the world:
“Part of the point of something like Chromaflex is to help lay bare some of the chemistry involved in the apparatus of cinema. What does it do, how does it work? I’m interested in laying it bare not only for the audience but more particularly for the artists. Because I want them to continue their journey of stepping inside the apparatus, and I think the way to do that is to understand it. I like procedures, I like procedures that take people inside a medium. I like work that speaks of someone having made it from the perspective of someone being deep inside a medium. Really being inhabitants of that domain”.
In Etienne’s Hand (2013, 16mm), it is the cinematic condensation and displacement of time that is harnessed for artistic effect. It is a 13-minute film composed out of a 5 second shot, forming a kind of ‘movement study’ of a restless hand. The effect is that the awkward, repeated gestures of its nervous owner, Etienne, are figured by the repetitive back and forth movements of the 5 seconds of footage. The rest of the body obscured from the frame, the hand is animated as if the tremors speak their own language and the grace and beauty of its movements are captured and relayed through the repetition of and return to the closing and opening of the fist. Working with the visible contours of the everyday, the lines, angles, and forms of the object on screen are transfigured through attention to the possibilities of the technology, and the aesthetic effect is a visual invocation to the naturalised, everyday view.
The ‘second nature’ of the camera is equally evident in Ironwood, (2009, 16mm) a meditative vision of a stringy-bark tree trunk. Sounds of a hammer are rhythmically placed in time with stilled, close-up shots of the trunk of the tree. The camera circles the tree, and while both sound and image mimic the woodcutter’s axe, Ironwood also concentrates on preserving the visual beauty of the roughage of the trunk where the tree itself takes on an autonomous life – highlighted by extreme low-angle shots pointed toward to the top of the tree, its limbs outstretched toward the sky. The natural, long folds of bark are figured as a kind of cinematic sculpture; shot in black-and-white, Ironwood sets in motion a free association of images and brought to mind – among other things – a microscopic picture of a spider leg, a human hair, or the long limb of a science fiction monster. The effect is hallucinatory, and the interest in slowing down, stopping, and speeding up, as a tracing of the technical possibilities of the medium to induce altered ways of looking, can also be related to the work of Peter Tcherkassky or Martin Arnold in their cutting up and re-assemblage of old Hollywood films. 6 Nonetheless, each of Tuohy’s films is surmounted as a reflexive comment on the possibilities of cinema. In his words: “To transform whatever it was that you were filming into something new. (…) I use the philosophical term ‘emergent phenomena.’ I like to think of creating situations where new phenomena will emerge from the apparatus. Maybe you weren’t expecting that, or the audience wasn’t, but this tells us about the apparatus of cinema”.
This artistic harnessing of the automatism of film forms poetic and philosophical insights into how cinema (re)produces perception, sensation, and the representation of the world. Indeed, it is worth returning here to how early film theorists considered the peculiar nature of the manner in which cinematic technology captures and renders the image of ordinary objects and automatically effects the imagination, memory, and thought process. Writing in Italy in 1907, early film theorist Giovanni Papini commented on the visual effect that the projected image produced in his mind. The “miraculous dividing up of bodies; processions of heads without bodies or bodies without heads” common to stop-trick-films such as those by Georges Méliès was, for Papini, also a new development in the capacity of the human imagination and he provocatively wrote that encountering cinema was a “little like opium” only “without the negative effects”. 7 This concept of cinema as stimulating and effecting the procession of ones thoughts was further provoked some 20 years later by French film theorist Jean Epstein. For Epstein, writing on the image of the close-up, the material and the immaterial were impossibly elided; before the body on the cinema screen, he felt his mind eating the image. It was “not even true that there is air between us; I consume it”. 8
In a sense, one is literally made witness to this elision in Tuohy’s Dot Matrix (16mm, 2013), which is a camera-less film made through combining the output of two projectors onto one screen. The filmic strips are covered in rows of dots, made through the ‘Rayograph’ or ‘Photogram’ technique (originally developed by Man Ray in the 1930s) where objects are directly placed onto the negative in a dark room, and the film is exposed to a flashing torch. The intent of Dot Matrix, as Tuohy himself confirmed after a July 2015 retrospective screening of his work, is to “fuck your retinas”. This occurs through its game with the projector, which processes the filmic strip in a stop-start motion through the shutter. Dot Matrix plays on the fact that it is the viewer, not the technology, which creates the original sense that the picture is moving:
“Dot Matrix is playing games with continuous motion being converted into an intermittent motion, by the work of the film projector. That’s a fundamental thing in cinema, the continuous motion being converted into an intermittent motion. It’s a camera-less film, where I’ve laid dots on the surface of the film. The projector eats them intermittently, and that produces phenomenal effects. Dot Matrix is something about the transformation that occurs at the heart of cinema, how the strip turns into discrete frames.”
Such an aleatory approach to spectatorship also results from the combination of screen and its automatic refraction by the perceiving human eye, and it is also what makes writing on the reflexivity of experimental and avant-garde cinema so difficult. It literally and figuratively hurts to watch these films. It is literal due to the violent sensation of images being created from the effect of flashing against the retina – indeed watching a similar film in my early 20s induced a quasi-epileptic response and I was left with a sense of being continuously electrocuted almost one week after viewing. (It goes without saying that I watch against the advice of my doctor). It figuratively hurts because before such images, as described by film theorist and critic Nicole Brenez, “The individual no longer exists, he is but a porous figure”, as the body is experienced as animated or as internally influenced by the procession of film through the projector onto the screen. 9
Indeed, to continue with the metaphor of digestion and bodily absorption into the frame, Steven McIntyre notes in his review of Dirk de Bruyn, who is also a fellow Australian experimental filmmaker, that this type of filmmaking is not so “eye-boggling” as “gut-wrenching”. 10 Such films function as an address to the entire nervous system as they “operate and are understood strictly in performance as a bodily, almost cellular exchange between the artist, the technologies of the artwork and the spectator”. 11 Tuohy’s work foregrounds the technology itself within this exchange. His artistic inventions are as if the moving-image itself can encompass every stage of its own production through to the projection, as the actor and viewer of its own creation, and the spectator the unwitting subject of its impossible invention.
Thanks to Lesley Stern and Film and Screen Studies at Monash University for their feedback on this essay in the “Writing the Cinematic: Close Analysis and Performativity” workshop.
- Genevieve Yue, “Kitchen Sink Cinema: Artist-Run Film Laboratories,” Film Comment (March 30, 2015). ↩
- See: http://www.artistfilmworkshop.org/ ↩
- As a recent review of Tuohy’s work describes, through the words of film theorist and artist Malcolm Le Grice, this is also because the reproducibility of the work is found within a zone of ambivalence, one that is “maintained in part due to it (…) being neither original nor copy”. Giles Fielke, “Figures of the Machine: Richard Tuohy’s Halftone Films,” Discipline, 4 (2016), p. 97. ↩
- Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, “Cinema Manifesto,” Cantrills Filmnotes, 1 (March, 1971); reprinted in Film Is, 1 (2015). ↩
- Steven McIntyre, “Theoretical Perspectives on Expanded Cinema and the ‘Cruel’ Performance Practice of Dirk de Bruyn” Senses of Cinema, March 2008. ↩
- See, for example, Outer Space, 1999, The Exquisite Corpus, 2015; Alone, Life Wastes Andy Hardy, 1998). ↩
- Giovanni Papini, “Philosophical Observations on the Motion Picture,” La Stampa (Turin, 18 May 1907), pp. 1-2. ↩
- Jean Epstein, “Magnification,” in Richard Abel (ed), French Film Theory and Criticism, Vol 1 1907-1939 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 239. ↩
- Nicole Brenez, “Ultra-modern: Jean Epstein, or Cinema ‘Serving the Forces of Transgression and Revolt,’” trans. Mireille Dobrzynski, in Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, eds. Sarah Keller and Jason S. Paul (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), p. 234. ↩
- McIntyre, Op. cit. See also Vivian Sobchack, “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh,” Senses of Cinema, April 2000 ↩
- McIntyre, Op. cit. ↩